Shrine of the Demon Goddess (2023)
by Jonathan Becker
Bored with weird ingredients and stamp-sized portions? Jaded with molecular gastronomy? The nightingale tongue pâté and the jellyfish confit no longer do anything? Is it all fated to be filled with ennui? If so, you might try wholesome home cooking. It may not be fancy, but it is based on the tried and true, and the wisdom of generations. Shrine of Demon Goddess is that sort of module. The final stage in the three-part Storming the Forbidden City series run on Cauldron Con (which would probably give it the C3 module code), it is now freely available on the author’s blog as a free download. Let’s be clear: this is the PDF conversion of a very simple Word file, the first two parts of which (the first two tournament rounds) do not even have a map. The text is a simple series of bullet point entries without art or any further layout. The text is not even justified. We did not come for the production values.
Without a map for the first two scenarios, To Rescue a Prince and The House of Horan (which are also more bare-bones), we will only focus on the third. Shrine of Demon Goddess is an add-on to TSR’s Dwellers of the Forbidden City. Much of the ruined city was never detailed in the module, so Jonathan Becker took one of the random city blocks, and turned it into a scenario. The scope of the adventure is about one or two sessions of play (if the players decide to explore the whole of it), featuring a three-level dungeon with a total of 27 keyed areas. Each level follows Dwellers’ Meso-American theme, but each is subtly different: the surface area has a weirdly shaped five-sided pyramid temple; the first underground level is catacomb exploration and tomb-robbing; and the third is a cave system with setpiece encounters in the titular shrine. The levels are interconnected, making for about an expedition each – we mostly focused on the second, while a different playtest group hit the third.
We now come back
to the home cooking analogy. There is nothing here that causes a complete
surprise, or tries to dazzle you with wild ideas (Ship
of Fate has you covered there), it is just solid, competent material,
the sort of thing a skilled DM creates in a few evenings for a weekend game
session. It all hangs together, and there is a pleasing smoothness to it all. The
encounters are built on D&D standards, employed and combined skilfully, and
adapted to the module theme. You infiltrate a compound that seems deserted, but
suspiciously so. You explore a gridlike catacomb system, trying to find the “special”
rooms. A subterranean chamber has four statues depicting three-headed eagles,
three in a sad state, one pristine (if you immediately go “I chuck a stone at
the mimic”, you are a better player than us). A hard-to-access room is “dominated
by an ancient well, intricately carved with eagles and serpents” (observe the emerging
theme, as well as the Mexican flag homage), inhabited by a pack of water
weirds, and blocking a passage with treasures. It is all familiar concepts, but
constructed well. The Forbidden City theme is heavily exploited; elements of
decaying and dangerous architecture, Meso-American weirdness, and the feel of National
Geographic-approved funerary complexes are gamified.
The skill of the design also crops up in the structure and smaller details. The treasure distribution is built on the “large, well-defended treasure caches” idea instead of a more even trickle with the occasional spike (which tends to be closer to my approach). You are moving through the environment to hit one of the scores, and there is not much small-scale stuff. When you win, it is a big one, like 10,000 platinum with extra gems/jewelry and a few high-quality magic items. Likewise, the monster encounters are not just random assignments plopped down in rooms, they are placed in situations where they represent a challenge. A yuan-ti jailer is weak on his own in single combat, but has the ability to sneak up on the party and cause mayhem. The water weirds are blocking treasure, and are vulnerable to the Cleric’s spell… unless he is the first to get dragged underwater (as it happened with us). A cavern filled with 92 snakes in all sizes and varieties and blocking your path presents a conundrum – do we go around silently and risk an attack? Nuke them and waste a fireball, or even alert the rest of the complex? Do something else? This is a module filled with interesting choices and strong opponents, even for a level 7–9 party.
Shrine of Demon Goddess looks unassuming on a first look, but then establishes a strong, functional baseline, which it sticks to. It is well made. One reason you aren’t paying good money for modules like this is that they are not for sale, and what you get instead is fare that invariably tends to be higher concept but lower quality (often considerably so). A bunch of releases you see in the wild have the production values and wahoo ideas, and all they lack is skill. This module is just skill. You will find it useful if you ever need something Meso-American – if only standard stuff was exactly as good. The rating is a high ***; the award-winning GMing added the extra * in play.
This module does not credit its playtesters, but I hereby witness having played and survived it. We took losses and carried away fabulous treasures, as is proper.
Rating: *** /